Coronavirus round-up: ‘Plandemic’, ‘Obamagate’, and how Trump fuels disinformation

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Edited by Marco Nurra

Plandemic: how the debunked movie by discredited researcher Judy Mikovits went viral. A snippet of an upcoming film, Plandemic, went viral with astonishing speed when it was released last week. In the process, it showed how false beliefs generated within the anti-vaxxer movement have become interwoven with familiar far-right conspiracy narratives. It also demonstrated that by combining the efforts of grassroots believers and charismatic influencers, anti-vaxxers have become adept at producing and disseminating viral propaganda to mainstream audiences.

7 methods journalists used to dismantle the ‘Plandemic’ video. How do you cover a conspiracy theory? Journalists who write about misinformation know that the trick is to debunk the falsehoods without amplifying them or generating any suggestion of legitimacy. Context is critical, as is an exploration of potential harms for believers. The pseudoscience-ridden, conspiracy-driven “Plandemic” video, which contains a number of baseless theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, provides a case study in the number of ways journalists can approach such a story. Since the video first appeared early last week, the myriad angles journalists have used to cover it show that a good debunking can be embedded in any number of story genres.

ProPublica health care reporter Marshall Allen describes the questions he asks to assess coronavirus misinformation, starting with with the viral video “Plandemic” that claims the coronavirus is part of a “hidden agenda.” Sensational videos, memes, rants and more about COVID-19 are likely to keep coming. With society polarized and deep distrust of the media, the government and other institutions, such content is a way for bad actors to sow discord, mostly via social media. 

‘Obamagate’ is the new birtherism. The past week has seen President Trump, desperate to distract from the coronavirus, turn his attention to the promotion of a new conspiracy theory: “Obamagate.” This theory posits the prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was part of a broader scheme against the Trump presidency, masterminded by former President Barack Obama. It’s not at all clear how this is supposed to come together; Trump could not explain it when asked a press conference, saying that “some terrible things happened” and that “the crime is very obvious to everybody.” But while Obamagate may not make very much sense on the merits, it makes complete sense as an ideological totem. It is eerily reminiscent of the conspiracy theory Trump rode to political prominence a decade ago: birtherism. The notion that Obama was not born in the United States was never even remotely plausible. But it served a particular ideological function: It otherized America’s first black president, claiming that he was not American-born at all, and that therefore he and his election were illegitimate.

‘Obamagate’: Fox News focuses on conspiracy theory rather than Covid-19. In recent days, the US president’s favourite network has elevated the spurious “Obamagate” scandal over all other subjects, most obviously the deaths of more than 84,000 Americans in a pandemic which the Trump administration has failed to contain.

Americans say there are two main sources of COVID-19 misinformation: social media and Donald Trump. A majority of U.S. adults think that misinformation about the the COVID-19 pandemic is a problem, according to survey results released Monday by Gallup and the Knight Foundation. Asked to identify the two most common sources of misinformation, a combined 68 percent name social media and 54 percent the Trump administration, though more give the Trump administration as their first response (47 percent) than social media (15 percent).

The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database published more than 5,000 fact-checks about the coronavirus. Here are the 5 most popular. The database unites fact-checkers around the world in publishing, sharing and translating facts surrounding the new coronavirus. The alliance was launched in January when the spread of the virus was restricted to China but already causing rampant misinformation globally. It is the largest collaborative project ever launched in the fact-checking world.

It is not true that masks cause hypoxia. This hoax is now viral and dangerous. In 11 countries — Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Brazil and France — people are reading on social media that masks can cause hypoxia — a dangerous decrease in the oxygen level available to the body’s cells. This is a lie.

Communicative actions we live by: The problem with fact-checking, tagging or flagging fake news – the case of Facebook. “In this article, we question the efforts undertaken by Facebook in regard to fact-checking, tagging, and flagging instances or appearances of fake news. We argue that in a global world of communication, fake news is a form of communicative action, which we must learn to deal with rather than try to remove,” Jack Andersen and Sille Obelitz Søe argues. “The very existence of fake news is a political question inscribing itself in the history of political communication and thus in the long run a question about the democratic conversation.”

How scientists’ rush to publish Covid-19 research fuels disinformation. A flood of unvetted papers posted to preprint servers highlights the dangers of open-access science in a pandemic. In one notorious instance, one study by a group of scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in January fueled conspiracy theories that claimed the virus is a laboratory-manufactured bioweapon. The paper purported to identify an “uncanny similarity” between the new coronavirus and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Derek Lowe, author of Science magazine’s In the Pipeline blog on drug discovery, told me via email that, upon scrutiny, the paper “very quickly was found to be not able to justify its conclusions.” “A decent journal would never have let it through,” he added.

Coronavirus anger foments violence against journalists. Protesters from across Germany’s political spectrum are demonstrating against coronavirus restrictions. But their ire is also directed at established media outlets, making life increasingly dangerous for journalists.

Media coverage has blown anti-lockdown protests out of proportion. A comprehensive look at the social distancing protests reveals that they have been small in terms of both the number of participants and locations. Recent anti-Trump rallies have been bigger than the anti-lockdown protests.

The Atlantic’s executive editor talks conspiracy theories, journalistic norms, and new products for all those new subscribers. “I had people believing outlandish, harmful things who were repeating back to me the values that I, as a journalist, have. Your mind melts.”

Explanatory journalism is entering a golden age in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Journalists — and experts from science, business and government — are using explanatory journalism to communicate in the public interest.